Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Hustler: Strong Blu-ray presentation on its 50th anniversary

The Hustler (drama, romance, sport)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie and George C. Scott

20th Century Fox | 1961 | 134 min | Rated R | Released May 17, 2011

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.34:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: Dolby Digital 2.0
French, German, Portuguese: DTS 5.1
Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1

English SDH, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Mandarin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc (digibook)

The Film 4.5/5

The Hustler was nominated for nine Oscars, winning for cinematography and art direction for a black and white film. The four main actors deservedly received nominations, although George C. Scott refused his. It was the second nomination for Newman, the first of three for Piper Laurie and Jackie Gleason’s only nomination. The film deserved the recognition, but West Side Story ended up with 10 Oscars that year. Newman received an honorary Oscar in 1986 and won a best supporting actor Oscar a year later when he reprised the role of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

The film is quite complex. Although a sports movie on the surface, there’s a strong romantic element. The story is essentially about strength of character. What would you do to get what you want in life? What if it means hurting people close to you? Is the goal worth the sacrifices? And, most important of all, how do we define success?

Newman was an emerging force in 1961, but his popularity hadn’t reached its peak. His portrayal of Eddie Felson was convincing. He only took the role because another movie he had committed to fell through.

Felson begins the story as a pool player who is building his reputation. He wants to take on the best and prove that he’s the better player. There are definite similarities between Felson’s place in the pool world and Newman’s status in the acting world at the time. Both were looking to make a name for themselves.

We learn in the opening scenes that Felson is a hustler. While playing a game with Charlie, his manager, he deliberately misses shots he could make. He also pretends to be drunk. The people watching are fooled and he wins $105 by betting that he can make a difficult shot and pulling it off. Then he leaves with Charlie and they look for victims in another town. This is Felson’s life. He makes a living conning people who don’t know that he has real ability.

Felson isn’t satisfied and dreams of making $10,000 in one night. In order to reach his lofty goal, he plans to play the best pool player in the country, Minnesota Fats (Gleason). Fats hasn’t lost a game for 15 years and has heard of Felson. He agrees to the game.

The stakes begin at $200 and quickly build to $1,000 per game. Felson is cocky and talks a good game, but also backs it up with good play. He’s soon ahead by over $11,000 and Charlie wants him to quit, but Felson says he’ll play until Fats says the game is over. He doesn’t just want to win, he’s looking to humiliate Fats and break his spirit. After 12 hours, Felson is ahead $18,000, but still insists on continuing the game.

You can see where the story is heading. Fats freshens up, washes his hands and puts powder on them. Felson teases him on how beautiful he looks. Fats starts winning and Felson keeps drinking. He eventually loses everything apart from $200. Who was hustling whom?

The pace of the film changes after the initial meeting with Fats. Felson doesn’t have the necessary stake money for another game. He meets Sarah Packard (Laurie) and eventually moves in with her. She has a limp from having polio as a child and enjoys drinking even more than Felson. The two are a good match and each has flaws.

Charlie visits and we learn that he has $1,500 which was his cut of Felson’s previous pool winnings. Felson is angry and decides to cut Charlie out of his life. Sarah wonders if she’s next. This part of the film moves a little slowly and some viewers may lose interest, but I felt it worked and was essential to give the film depth and additional meaning.

The pace picks up when Felson meets Bert Gordon (Scott) who is Fats’ manager and witnessed the first game between the two. Bert says that Fats was on the hook for the first time in 10 years, but Felson let him off. He calls Felson a born loser, but a loser with talent. He wants to be his manager and demands 75 percent of any winnings. He also issues a warning that Felson could get hurt if he wanders into the wrong pool hall and they realize that he’s hustling.

After learning a few life lessons, Felson takes Bert up on his offer. He takes Sarah for a meal and she comments that it’s the first time she’s seen him wear a tie. It’s a sign that he is willing to change. The two go on the road with Bert and Felson plays billiards for big stakes. Billiards isn’t his game of choice; he prefers pool. Felson loses initially, but something in his demeanor convinces Bert to continue staking him. He eventually wins enough for another showdown with Fats.

The final 10 minutes of the film show the second game between the two. Felson has changed since the first meeting and life has toughened him up. He’s still brash, but won’t take a drink while he’s playing. I won’t reveal who wins, but the film reflects on how we define winning and success in life.

The film has an authentic feel. The pool rooms are dark, seedy and potentially dangerous places. They match the gritty feel of the film. The pool scenes were shot in real pool halls rather than on a set. The only thing that wasn’t convincing is the way the actors held a cue in a few shots. A professional player wouldn’t have his head so far away from the cue and certainly wouldn’t wear a jacket in case it touched another ball and caused a foul shot. But the actors did a good job and both performed most of their shots. The remainder were performed by former billiards world champion Willie Mosconi.

Video Quality 4.5/5
The Hustler looks great in this 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition. There’s light grain throughout, but it’s never overwhelming. Much of the footage was shot in dark pool halls, but still looks good. The image is clean and free of dirt and print damage. There’s plenty of detail and the black and white image matches the mood of the film. 

Audio Quality 4/5
The lossless English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix isn’t perfect, but offers a considerable upgrade over previous releases. The balls enter the pockets with a resounding thump and the score sounds good. Where it loses a point is in the dialogue as it doesn’t sound completely natural. The original mix is also included as well as 5.1 mixes in four other languages.

Special Features 5/5

This package includes a number of features looking back on the film, as well as a couple of segments devoted to Newman's career. They are well worth a look.

Audio commentary by Paul Newman, Carol Rossen, Dede Allen, Stefan Gierasch, Ulu Grosbard, Richard Schickel and Jeff Young

Paul Newman at Fox (27:11)

Jackie Gleason: The Big Man (12:04)

The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis (18:55)

Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness (11:49)

Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler (28:04)

Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle (9:38)

The Hustler: The Inside Story (24:32)

Paul Newman: Hollywood’s Cool Hand (43:44)

Trick Shot Analysis by Mike Massey (13:51)

How to Make the Shot with Mike Massey (3:41)

US and Spanish theatrical trailers

26-page digibook

The digibook package looks beautiful and the pages contain high quality photographs. The only slight reservation I have is that the disc isn’t held in place by a spindle, it just slides into a slot.

The Hustler is a character-driven drama with a strong romantic element. It should appeal to a wide variety of people and is one of Newman’s best roles. He’s surrounded by a quality supporting cast. If you are a fan of Newman or character pieces in general, this 50th anniversary presentation is an essential purchase. If you like the film, check out The Color of Money (1986) to find out what the future holds for Felson.

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